Look at the specifications and you'll see impressive mileage for a car in the compact class, especially for one with Subaru's signature standard all-wheel drive: 27/36 mpg city/highway. If you like what you see so far, driving the Impreza probably won't deter you, but it won't close the deal, either.
The 2012 Subaru Impreza undeniably has broader appeal than ever before, but there are still downsides associated with its standard all-wheel drive, not just in terms of price.
Both body styles come in three trim levels: 2.0i (base), 2.0i Premium and 2.0i Limited. The hatchback, which Subaru calls the "5-door," adds two more levels: the 2.0i Sport Premium and 2.0i Sport Limited.
Subaru has discontinued the Outback Sport, a butched-up hatchback modeled after the larger Outback SUV. The turbocharged WRX and WRX STI versions continue as they were in 2011; they're 2012 models but not redesigns. All new Imprezas hit dealerships in November.
ExteriorTo the outside observer, little distinguishes the Impreza's various trim levels. The base side mirrors are black-colored and fold, and the door handles are body-colored. Fifteen-inch steel wheels with wheel covers are standard. The hatchback includes a spoiler atop its liftgate.
The Premium trim level adds 16-inch alloy wheels and body-colored side mirrors. The Sport Premium hatchback adds fog lights, rocker panel extensions, black roof rails and 17-inch gunmetal-gray alloy wheels. Two-tone body color is optional.
The Limited trim level adds chrome accents to the fog lights and grille, and the Sport Limited hatchback incorporates silver grille accents instead.
Behind the wheelI believe the greatest obstacle facing Impreza shoppers is the car's power. The new, smaller engine is less powerful than the previous generation's power plant. Though the base car has shed 165 pounds and the new automatic transmission manages to shave a few tenths off the 2011 model's zero-to-60-mph time, it remains just under 10 seconds. Major competitors beat that by as much as 3 seconds. This is what you might expect from a highly efficient new take on an existing model, but the even more efficient Hyundai Elantra, winner of our recent Cars.com Shootout, is about a second quicker. What's behind this? The additional weight of the Impreza's standard all-wheel drive certainly plays a part.
I'm no horsepower freak. Cars that some deem underpowered I instead call modestly powered. Still, if you load up the 2012 Impreza and/or take to the hills, especially at higher altitudes where the air is thinner, the normally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder will have its work cut out for it. Subaru says the regular Impreza won't get a turbocharger. That's left for the WRX and STI, which come at a substantial premium.
On the upside, when the Impreza's horizontally opposed engine is earning its keep, it sounds quite good ? by no means quiet, but deep and refined when compared with the frenetic whine or gravelly rasp many small four-bangers emit.
Replacing the previous generation's optional four-speed automatic is a continuously variable automatic transmission. It's standard on the Limited trim level and optional on all others for $1,000.
CVT: A-OKWe at Cars.com haven't warmed to CVTs because of their typical hesitation and the droning they illicit from engines. Like most automatics, CVTs are at their worst when teamed with small engines, so I was wary of this one, which Subaru describes as a more compact version of the one in the Outback and Legacy.
Overall, I was relieved. Though the car takes a few seconds to really get going from a standing start, it feels natural enough. Likewise, the lag when you jab the accelerator for passing power is acceptable. Sometimes you don't even notice it. The engine provides enough oomph at lower engine speeds that it need not rev up to the heavens at the slightest request for power. More than some CVTs, the Impreza's allows the engine to wind down pretty quickly when you let off the gas, giving it a more natural feel like a conventional transmission does when it shifts up a gear after a quick sprint. The CVT also has an effective hill-hold feature so you can take your foot off both pedals when waiting on an incline, and the car won't roll backward.
A CVT has truly succeeded if the average driver can hop in, drive and never know there's anything different about it. The Impreza isn't quite there, but it's as close as any four-cylinder/CVT combo I've driven, and maybe closer.
Anyone who wants to pretend he's driving a regular automatic can use the steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles to select "gears" sequentially. They aren't gears as much as six fixed ratios along the CVT's wide range.
If you want a true manual, you can get that, too, standard on all trim levels but the Limited. The five-speed has a light clutch pedal and a journeyman shifter and is pleasant enough to use, but the advantages are fewer than ever. Yes, it will save you $1,000, but the mileage advantage is gone ? 25/34 mpg versus 27/36 mpg with the automatic, in the sedan. (The manual hatchback gets 1 mpg less on the highway.)
The transmission also needs another gear, both for efficiency and performance's sake. As manual transmissions' mileage advantage slips away, I suspect automakers will learn that they appeal mainly to those who simply want to drive a manual, and those buyers will demand more performance, not less. The manual 2012 Impreza doesn't fit that description.
Apart from the manual gearbox's inherent limitations, it teams with a simpler, viscous-coupling all-wheel-drive system rather than the automatic's sophisticated electronically controlled clutch-based hardware. The latter can apportion 100 percent of the power to the front or rear axle while the manual splits it 50/50. This is the norm across Subaru's other models (except the high-performance STI), in which I've found both systems to be excellent in snow and off-road. Most drivers wouldn't perceive a difference.